VAERA

Torah Reading: VA-EIRA Exodus 6:2-9:3

 

"WITH MY NAME YHVH I WAS NOT KNOWN TO THEM"

 

At the end of last week's parashat of SHEMOS, we saw how, precisely when Moses started the process of Geulah (redemption) by asking Pharaoh to send away the Children of Israel, the latter responded by intensifying their oppression and servitude. This caused even Moses to question his mission: "Yahweh, why have You done evil to this people? Why have You sent me?" (Ex. 5:22).

 

Our parashat of VA-EIRA opens with Yahweh's answer to Moses. It contains a profound teaching about faith. Yahweh promises, and it is up to Yahweh to deliver! He can be relied upon absolutely to do so -- in His own good time. Even in the thickest darkness, we must have faith that Yahweh will redeem us. We must understand that the darkness is most intense just before the morning.

 

In Yahweh's answer to Moses, He says that He appeared to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as "the Eternal Elohim" but "WITH MY NAME YHVH I WAS NOT KNOWN TO THEM" (Ex. 6:3). What does this mean? It is a fact that the essential name of HaShem, YHVH -- expressing the perfect unity of Yahweh within and beyond all phenomena -- was indeed known to the patriarchs, as we see many times in Genesis. However, as pointed out by Rashi here, the Hebrew text (NODA'TI) does not mean, "I did not make it known to them". Rather, it implies: "I was not known and RECOGNIZED for my quality of truthfulness. as HaShem Who am faithful in proving the truth of My words. For I promised them but as yet I have not fulfilled the promise" (see Rashi).

 

An integral part of faith in Yahweh is to have faith that He will bring about everything He has promised through His prophets, even if we cannot see how this can possibly come about. The Exodus from Egypt is the proof of this faith, for Yahweh had promised the patriarchs what He was going to do: "And also the people that they will serve I will judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great wealth" (Gen. 15:13-14). At the height of Egyptian power and arrogance, it seemed impossible that this could come about. But in this and the coming parshiyos telling the story of the Ten Plagues and the Exodus, we see that Yahweh indeed brought it about.

 

No less essential a part of the promise than the redemption from Egypt was that Yahweh will "bring you to the Land that I swore to give it to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and I WILL GIVE IT TO YOU AS AN INHERITANCE -- I AM HASHEM" (Ex. 6:8). It is not sufficient for the Children of Israel "go out from Egypt", even in the spiritual sense of being released from the chains of servitude to the evanescent material world. Yahweh's plan for a perfect world will be fulfilled only when the Children of Israel dwell securely in their own Promised Land, fulfilling all the commandments that are bound up with the Land. We must have complete faith that Yahweh will bring this about.

 

KAL VA-CHOMER - "Light and stringent"

 

When the Children of Israel could not hear Moses' message of redemption because of "shortness of spirit and hard work" (Ex. 6:9), Moses wondered: "If the Children of Israel did not listen to me, how will Pharaoh listen to me?" (ibid. v. 12).

 

Moses' argument is based on making an inference from a "light" case -- the Children of Israel -- to a "stringent" case: Pharaoh. In Hebrew such an inference is known as KAL VA-CHOMER, "light-and-stringent". In the written text of the Five Books of Moses there are ten cases of arguments using KAL VA-CHOMER (Rashi ad loc.) The ten cases are listed in the Tannaitic commentary on Exodus, "Mechilta". The argument of KAL VA-CHOMER is one of the most important of the hermeneutical methods by which the sages derived teachings by inference even though they are not written explicitly in the Torah text. KAL VA-CHOMER is the first of "thirteen rules of Torah interpretation" set down by the tannaitic sage, Rabbi Ishmael. These have become part of the daily order of prayer, being recited at the conclusion of the sacrificial portions prior to PSUKEY DE-ZIMRA, the verses and psalms of the morning service. Besides Rabbi Ishmael's thirteen, there are other hermeneutical rules, such as the Thirty-Two rules of Midrash collected by Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yosi HaGalili (printed in the KLALIM, "rules" of the Talmud, after Tractate Berachos).

 

As in the case of Moses' argument by KAL VA-CHOMER that Pharaoh would not listen, all the other rules of interpretation are themselves contained in the biblical text. It is through the application of these rules that extensive parts of the Oral Torah were developed by the early sages and rabbis. When rules like KAL VA-CHOMER are applied to the text, it is possible to infer new teachings that are not explicitly written in the text but are logically implied. The legitimacy of this method of argument is sanctioned by its use in the Biblical text itself, as here. This shows the essential unity of the Oral and Written Torah.

 

THE TEN PLAGUES

 

In the event, Yahweh took on the "harder" task of bringing down Pharaoh and breaking his stony heart. This was what would make the Children of Israel listen! This was accomplished through the Ten Plagues. The gripping account of the first seven plagues occupies the greater part of this week's parashat of VAYEIRA, while next week's parashat of BO bring us to the climax with the last three plagues and the Exodus itself.

 

Many have sought to explain the sequence of plagues according to some rationale. One of the most celebrated explanations is that mentioned by Rashi on Ex. 8:17, quoting from Midrash Tanchuma Parshas BO #4, a Tannaitic source:

 

"Our Rabbis of blessed memory said: The Holy One blessed be He brought the plagues upon them using the tactics of worldly kings. When a region rebels against a king of flesh and blood, he sends his legions to surround it. The first thing he does is to shut off their water supply. If they relent, all the better! If not, he brings against them criers with loud voices... then arrows. barbarian hordes. He hurls heavy weights at them. Shoots burning oil. fires cannon. rouses multitudinous armies against them. Imprisons them. Kills their great ones. In the same way, the Holy One blessed be He came against the Egyptians with the tactics of kings. With the plague of blood He stopped up their water supply. The "criers" were the frogs with their loud croaking. His "arrows" were the fleas. His "barbarian hordes" were the wild animals. The "heavy weights" were the "heavy pestilence" that killed their livestock. The "burning oil" was the boils. The cannon shots were the hail. The "multitudinous armies" were the locusts. The Egyptians were "imprisoned" through the plague of darkness. Finally, He killed their great ones in the plague of the first born."

 

 

THE PHARAOH WITHIN US

 

"Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and when he stumbles, let not your heart exult. Lest Yahweh will see and it will be bad in His eyes" (Proverbs 24:17).

 

We may not laugh over Pharaoh's downfall, because there is a Pharaoh in each one of us. This is the stubborn MELECH (king) who rules in our hearts, in our ego, our vanity and pride. I. me.!

 

Writ large in the drama of Moses coming against Pharaoh in the name of Yahweh is the story of our inner lives, our daily conflicts and struggles in the test of free will to which we are all subjected. One side of us -- Moses, "conscience" -- knows what we should do. But another side -- Pharaoh, "the evil urge", the king riding the chariot -- resists. There are constant ups and downs in the trial of free will. Today one "wants to" -- Pharaoh relents. Tomorrow, he hardens his heart again and resists.

 

Does it need plagues to beat this Pharaoh down? Or can we find better ways to get free and to take our destiny into our hands?

 

 

Of Kings and Prophets

 

I. The lineage of Moshe and Aharon

 

Parashat Vaera is rich with topics that are profound as well as fascinating. Beginning with the issue of the Divine attributes and culminating with the age-old problem of free choice and foreknowledge, we are confronted by an array of basic problems in Jewish philosophy.

 

Behold, Bnei Yisrael have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen, and I am of uncircumcised lips? (Shemot 6:12)

 

This statement is repeated almost verbatim in verse 30, at which point the narrative resumes. In between, we find what appears to be an artificial insert, dealing with the lineage of the Jewish people. Rashi, in fact, comments: "This statement [verse 30], is the same statement mentioned above [verse 12]...  it was repeated at this point because of the interruption..."

 

This "interruption" is troubling. Why was it necessary to insert the lineage of the Jewish people at this point? Are there no locations more fitting for this survey? For instance, chapter 4, wherein Moshe returns to Bnei Yisrael, would seem to be a suitable choice. Alternatively, it could have been placed in chapter 7, following Moshe's dialogue with Yahweh.

 

Rashi (6:14) already noted that the survey is incomplete. Apparently, the Torah was interested not in the lineage of the entire Jewish people, but basically in the family background of Moshe and Aharon. Although it begins with a brief account of Reuben and Shimon’s families, there is a detailed discussion of the household of Levi, with a comprehensive account of Moshe and Aharon. (The absence of Moshe's children from this account is quite revealing within the context of last week's shiur). 

 

This observation however, does not solve our problem - it merely redirects it. Why was it crucial to trace the yichus (lineage) of Moshe and Aharon at this specific point? Why not inform us of Moshe's yichus at the beginning of chapter 2? Why is Moshe first introduced to us anonymously as the child of a mysterious "ish mi-beit Levi" (2:1)? Why was Moshe's full identity revealed to us only in mid-dialogue with Yahweh?

 

The interruption in mid-discussion, which forced the Torah to repeat Moshe's statement in order to pick up the story thread, is so odd and out of place that it, bears witness to the absolute necessity of noting Moshe's family background at this particular juncture. The Torah is transmitting a subtle message to us. We, for our part, are obligated to attempt to decipher this message.

 

I believe that a close examination of the verses in question will reveal a sharp difference regarding the role of Moshe Rabbeinu as described at the beginning and the end of the chapter. Furthermore, I will try to show that Moshe's lineage is critical specifically for the role described at the end.

 

II. I Am Yahweh

 

Let us take a closer look at the Yahweh-Moshe dialogue that precedes the lineage of Moshe and Aharon and contrast it with the how the dialogue is worded following that section.

 

10) And Yahweh spoke unto                29) And Yahweh spoke unto

Moshe saying:                                Moshe, saying:

11) “Go in, speak unto Pharaoh,                  “I am Yahweh; speak unto

king of Egypt, to allow Bnei                 Pharaoh, king of Egypt, all that I

Yisrael to leave his land.”          say to you.

 

 

12) And Moshe spoke before               30) And Moshe said before

Yahweh, saying, “Behold, the              Yahweh: “Behold, I am of

 children of Israel have not                  uncircumcised lips, and how

listened to me; how then shall            shall Pharaoh hearken unto

Pharaoh hear me, who am of               me?”

uncircumcised lips?’

 

The first account of Yahweh's command to Moshe (verse 11), differs slightly from the demand that precedes the repetition. Initially, Yahweh orders Moshe to speak to Pharaoh "to allow Bnei Yisrael to leave his land". However, in verse 29, Moshe is commanded to "speak to Pharaoh all that I say to you." While in chapter 11, the content of Moshe's assignment is explicitly emphasized - to free Bnei Yisrael - in chapter 29, the purpose is entirely absent. All that is mentioned is the general demand to speak whatever Yahweh will command.

 

At first glance, this might be taken as support for the thesis that verse 30 is merely a repetition of verse 12, so that an abridged version of the command suffices. However, a sensitive reading of verse 29 clearly reveals that not only brevity is at work here - there are additions that were introduced that are not found in verse 11. The demand of Yahweh, as described in verse 29, is followed by the superfluous clause, "all that I say to you." More strikingly, it is preceded by the declaration "I am Yahweh." These elaborations seem to indicate a basic difference between the two versions. The initial command is pragmatic in nature. Moshe, functioning as a political leader of Bnei Yisrael, is charged with a defined task - freeing the people from bondage. In contrast, the significance of the second command is unrelated to any practical outcome vis-a-vis Bnei Yisrael.  "I am Yahweh! Speak to Pharaoh in My name. Tell him all that I say to you." Moshe is ordered to be the mouthpiece of Yahweh, to deliver to Pharaoh a divine message, to represent, as it were, Yahweh Himself. To “speak in the name of Yahweh” is not merely a hollow abbreviation of the previously noted task. Rather, it is the essence of a distinctly different role that was thrust upon Moshe Rabbeinu.  The disregard of the pragmatic agenda highlights the religious nature of his mission.

 

The twofold response of Moshe Rabbeinu corresponds to his dual role.  Verse 12 is comprised of a logical argument: Just as Bnei Yisrael didn't listen to me, so will Pharaoh ignore me. This should be contrasted with verse 30, where the proof is absent. Within the pragmatic context, the issue is one of results. Will Moshe be successful in his political assignment or not? However, the demand placed upon Moshe in verse 29 raises an entirely different issue.  How can a frail finite human being possibly be a representative of Yahweh? How can one with uncircumcised lips possibly speak in the name of Pure Holiness? The issue is not whether or not Pharaoh will agree to free Bnei Yisrael.  The problem is the absurdity inherent in the role itself.

 

As a matter of fact, the second account of Moshe's argument is followed by an explicit description of the Divine nature of Moshe's task.  "Behold I have made you a "Elohim" to Pharaoh, and your brother Aharon shall be your prophet" (7:1).  Furthermore, it should be noted that up until this point, Moshe and Aharon have not performed any signs or miracles in Pharaoh's presence; they merely demanded the temporary release of Bnei Yisrael.  It is only from this point on that they begin to perform miracles (see 7:8-13).

 

For the task with which Moshe was initially charged there was no necessity to delve into his family background. Even the son of the anonymous "ish mi-beit Levi" is capable, due to his extraordinary personal abilities, of assuming a role of political leadership. His unique qualities coupled with the singular circumstances he experienced as a child were sufficient reason to choose him to lead Bnei Yisrael out of bondage.

 

However, the role of Divine representation cannot be accomplished by any human being, no matter how great. It is impossible for any finite individual to fulfill such a role. The mandate to represent Yahweh was not and could not be given to anyone on the personal level. Rather, this Divine role was reserved for an entire nation, chosen to be a "kingdom of priests and a sanctified nation." Therefore, prior to introducing the second aspect of his argument, there is a prerequisite of rooting Moshe Rabbeinu firmly within the context of Knesset Yisrael.  Moshe, the talented son of the anonymous "ish mi-beit Levi" is charged with the task of leading Bnei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim.  However, it is only Moshe the son of Amram, the grandson of Levi, who is appointed by Yahweh as a Divine representative to speak to Pharaoh in the name of Yahweh.

 

At the end of the genealogical listing, Moshe and Aharon are introduced twice. "These are Aharon and Moshe, who were told by Yahweh, 'Take Bnei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim..." (6:26). This verse refers to their political role as leaders charged with the task of practically freeing Bnei Yisrael.  At this level, Aharon and Moshe are equals, and Aharon the elder is mentioned first. "They are the ones who SPOKE to Pharaoh, the king of Mitzrayim...  they are Moshe and Aharon" (6:27). When referring to the representative role of speaking to Pharaoh, Moshe is primary. "Behold, I have made you a Elohim to Pharaoh, and your brother Aharon shall be your prophet" (7:1).

 

Moshe Rabbeinu was chosen both as political leader of Bnei Yisrael and also as messenger of Yahweh. His leadership expresses itself in clearly defined political categories; together with Aharon, he is charged with leading Bnei Yisrael out of bondage.  He is unsure how he can possibly convince Pharaoh and fulfill this task, since even Bnei Yisrael ignore him.  Furthermore, Moshe, as a manifestation of Knesset Yisrael, is the messenger of Yahweh, charged to speak to Pharaoh in His holy name. He alone is given the impossible role of Divine representation. Hence, he questions the paradoxical nature of this task thrust upon him.

 

Nevertheless, the inscrutable will of Yahweh prevails. Moshe as leader, rooted in his unique individual qualities, successfully leads Bnei Yisrael to freedom, while Moshe as a manifestation of Knesset Yisrael speaks to Pharaoh in the name of Yahweh.

 

III. The Ten Plagues

 

This understanding of the complex role with which Moshe was charged casts an illuminating light on the purpose of the ten plagues. From the pragmatic perspective, which fulfills itself in achieving the result of freedom, the comprehensive constellation of the ten plagues seems superfluous, if not absurd. Was it really necessary for the Almighty to batter Pharaoh with ten separate plagues in order to emerge victorious? Was the Omnipotent unable to overpower Mitzrayim immediately? "For now, if I would stretch out my hand, I could smite you and your people with pestilence, and you would perish from the earth" (9:15). Evidently, the plagues had an additional purpose: "However for this have I sustained you, in order to show you my power, and so that my name shall be proclaimed throughout the earth" (9:16).

 

The dramatic battle between Pharaoh and Moshe was waged on two fronts. One front concerned itself with political sovereignty over Bnei Yisrael.  The issue of freedom or slavery hung in the balance. On the second front, Bnei Yisrael were only incidentally involved. The subject was of a cosmic-religious nature - who controlled the fate of Bnei Yisrael?  In the haftara we read, "And the land of Mitzrayim shall be desolate and waste, and they shall know that I am Yahweh, because he [Pharaoh) has said: The river is mine and I have made it" (Yechezkel 29:9).  Pharaoh deified himself. He considered himself not only master of the Israeli slaves, but their lord as well.  He demanded their worship along with their labor. The phrase, "Thus says Pharaoh” (5:10) in response to "Thus says Yahweh," is both striking and instructive.

 

Until chapter 6, the main focus was the issue of slavery. Moshe and Aharon, the political leaders of the people, demand a limited form of freedom.  They are met with scorn and abuse, both by Pharaoh as well as by Bnei Yisrael. In the following chapter, a new front is opened in the Moshe-Pharaoh confrontation. Bnei Yisrael are demoted to a secondary role, as Yahweh begins to smite Pharaoh and Mitzrayim. Moshe is charged with speaking to Pharaoh in HIS name.

 

At this point, the plagues begin. They were not meant to overpower Pharaoh or to conquer Mitzrayim.  Rather, the purpose was to prove beyond doubt the absolute existence, omnipotence, and omniscience of Yahweh Elokei Yisrael.  "Thus says Yahweh: with this you will know that I am the Lord" (7:17);  "So that you should know that I am Yahweh in the midst of the earth" (8:18);  "So that you should know that there is none like me in all the earth" (9:14).  (See Ramban 13:16.)

 

Moshe's subsequent career should be viewed from this dual perspective as well. We find that Korach's attack on the authority of Moshe is automatically translated as a rejection of Yahweh: "Therefore you and your company are gathered against Yahweh" (Bamidbar 16:11). Moshe did not serve only as the political leader - "And he was a king in Yeshurun" (Devarim 33:5, see Ibn Ezra) - Moshe was a prophet as well, who delivered the infinite word of Yahweh to Bnei Yisrael.  His unique level of prophecy was rooted in his special status as divine representative.

 

And there never arose in Yisrael a prophet like Moshe, whom Yahweh knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which Yahweh sent him to do in the land of Mitzrayim, to Pharaoh and to all his servants, and in all the mighty hand and great awe that Moshe performed in the sight of all Yisrael.